The freshman seminar proposal

… by Elizabeth Traugott and Arnold Zwicky, for Winter Quarter 2014. (Freshman and Sophomore Seminars have to be on topics not already covered by regular courses, and the classes are deliberately small — typically, around 15 students tops.) This has to be approved by the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, in brisk competition with other proposals from faculty members from all over the university, and then by the linguistics department, where it has to fit in with the year’s course offerings. No guarantee that it will happen.

The language of comics

Humans have remarkable abilities—to shape events and ideas in others’ minds through language. How do we understand each other and messages we receive?

This seminar will explore language as represented in cartoons and comics, for instance, Bizarro, Dilbert and Zits, how we interpret it, and why we find comics funny. In particular, we’ll explore language play (puns and rhymes, for instance); genderspeak and teenspeak; peeving about usage; and new and spreading usages. We’ll discuss the “grammar of comics”: how words and pictures can combine to create meanings that neither could create separately; and conventions of the genre, as they concern the representation of language in speech balloons and captions, lettering choices, obscenicons ($#!&), etc. Another major set of topics will be the narrative structure of the comics (the way events are represented as unfolding in time) and the representation of point of view (whose viewpoint we’re seeing things from).

These topics allow us to approach language and the comics from several directions, all represented in different areas of linguistics. We will test hypotheses about the way a language works and what the real generalizations may be about disputed usages. We will look at crucial test examples, examine claims about languages and their use empirically and statistically (how do teenagers really speak, and on what occasions?), and devise frameworks for interpreting texts that allow us to understand their aesthetic properties (humor, for instance).

Learning goals

Develop skills in articulating how language works, and in visual literacy.

Autobiographical sketches

Elizabeth Traugott is Professor Emerita of Linguistics and English. She received her A.B. in English from Oxford University and her PhD in English Language from the University of California, Berkeley. After brief stints teaching at UC Berkeley, Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania, and the University of York in the UK, she taught at Stanford from 1968 to 2003. Her primary area of research and teaching is the history of the English language, but she has deep interests in discourse and communication generally. She has taught freshman and sophomore seminars on language and law and doctor-patient communication. Now retired, she travels and writes a lot. An avid walker, she likes to hike in the Stanford hills and especially enjoys being in redwood country. Her other special enjoyment is going to concerts; her favorites are the St. Lawrence and Kronos quartets.

Arnold M. Zwicky is a Consulting Professor of Linguistics at Stanford, now retired from regular teaching. He has an A.B. in mathematics from Princeton, and a Ph.D. in linguistics from MIT. After teaching at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and the Ohio State University, he has been in residence year-round at Stanford since 1998 and since 2003 has been blogging extensively about language-related topics, on Language Log and his own blog. His research concerns general linguistic theory (syntax, morphology, and phonology); style; syntactic variation; usage and prescriptivism; mistakes in language; language and (homo)sexuality; and language in the comics. Outside of class, he’s an enthusiastic singer in the Sacred Harp shape-note singing tradition; a gay activist; a collage artist; and sometime writer of poetry and short fiction.

[Note the “human interest” sections of the sketches. And bear in mind that there’s a 300-word limit on each section of the proposal.]

4 Responses to “The freshman seminar proposal”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    Arnold, I think you and I share the fond belief that linguistics is one of several disciplines that will bring peace to the world.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      I’m not sure that ECT and I would say it quite that way, but we take great delight in our work in linguistics and think that understanding how language works can have good consequences for social life.

  2. Julian Lander Says:

    It’s the kind of course that I should have taken when I was a freshman or sophomore (yes, they had colleges then :-)) and never did. Oh, well…. I hope that it is approved and that you enjoy teaching it. If you do, your students will think you’re very hip.

  3. bratschegirl Says:

    Alas, one of my favorite jokes (“Jane is up at Cambridge.” “Oh, what is she reading?” “Comics.”) requires an audience either British or at least Anglophile… And it would be so perfect here!

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